He is eight when the mark appears. He doesn't notice. His opponent does.
"Congratulations", Mr. Najdorf says, and points to the currently illegible blur on his right wrist.
But Benny is eight, and there is chess to be played, and this is the greatest game of his life so far. He moves.
It is a promise.
It is a warning.
Some call it a suggestion.
Others, a dream.
He is twelve, and the mark is coalescing into lines. His sister teases him, telling him to "make sure to wait until she is legal". His parents scold her, but in more cautious terms, they agree. But he is not a little kid anymore. He knows about this stuff. He tells them he is not going to do anything stupid.
It is an easy promise, because Benny is twelve, and all that matters to him is the next game.
She does not remember a time without the rough scrawl spanning her wrist. No one is around to remark on it, and her mother ignores it. Beth is young, and it is beneath her notice.
Physiologically, "soulmarks" are discrete accretions of melanin under the skin. In practice, a soulmark forms an image or symbol that appears at the birth of the counterpart upon the wrist of the bearer. A symbol that indicates, upon meeting, that this person has the most potential for lasting companionship.
He is thirteen when the mark suddenly changes from smokey blur to actual letters.
I'd take the knight
They are rough, and disjointed in the way of young hands. But the words are clear enough, and he knows what they are referring to. They interest him. Because they are not the words of a potential spouse, but a colleague or competitor. He has heard about such matches before.
He is relieved because it promises a lifetime of competition and going for the top. It means not settling down, not settling for the ordinary, of excitement. It means more chess.
But Benny is thirteen, and a chess prodigy, and he has games to play. He spares a thought to this upstart kid who he cannot wait to crush, and moves on.
She is five, and is learning her letters. She sees the similarity between the scribbles on her arm and the characters in her books. She asks her mother what they mean.
'That just means there is someone out there who will try to control you', Alice dismisses.
But Beth is five, and has been isolated her whole life. She does not understand.
Soul marks naturally change over time. They come in near-transparent, change with the language and counterpart, and set into final form upon initial interaction. Naturally, they draw notice in a way most scars or tattoos never will.
He is fifteen, and feels like he is actually learning something from people his own age. Levertov frequently attends the same tournaments he does, and where he goes, so too goes Wexler. They are soulmates, though they deny their connection when it comes up in conversation. Understandable, really, given the flak same-sex matches get. Not that he assumes they are that type of match, he assures them, but theirs is the first chess-related bond he has seen besides his own and he is curious. They certainly aren't rivals. How does it work?
Different niches, they explain. Wexler favors theory, Levertov the application thereof. To prove their point, they offer to play him. They play several games against him simultaneous, and he beats them handily—but then they tag-team him, and though he still wins, it is the closest game he has had in months.
He relishes the challenge. "This wouldn't be allowed in competitive," he points out afterward. Wexler shrugs. "Makes you think, though." It really does.
He is fifteen, and he thinks he has found friends.
She is six, and watching her mother burn something in the barrel outside the trailer. "Did Daddy try to tell you what to do?" she asks.
Alice waves her arm. "These marks make them think they can. But you know what? It's just skin."
Beth is six years old, and wonders if there is more to it.
In illiterate societies, a soulmark might form a picture - the representation of that person or their name, in their own hand. This, historians and anthropologists argue, held across the centuries. An ancient body found frozen in an Alpine glacier had a stylized fox on his wrist. The natives of Polynesian societies would have their counterpart's tattoos delineated in exceptional accuracy. In East Asia, it was even believed that soulmarks became the basis of their pictorial scripts.
He is sixteen when he revisits his mark. (He could never resist a puzzle.) In between reviewing Luchenko and Capablanca, drilling through Morphy, he idly keeps an eye out for upcoming American prodigies in recent publications. He (because it would be male, given the statistics) surely would be coming to national attention soon. He had by this age, and he cannot fathom his match would not be of the same caliber.
Yet the upstart does not appear on the scene.
But Benny is sixteen, and there is still chess to be played, and other people to meet, and so he doesn't dwell.
it's all pawns and no hope
She is seven, and she can read her mark all the way through now. She doesn't know if she likes it very much. It seems depressing, by any definition.
Beth is seven years old, and she puts the dictionary down.
And at least since Plutarch wrote of Xerxes I's mark, μολὼν λαβέ, another form of soulmark is known: a string of words spoken by the counterpart to the bearer during their meeting - pleasantries and rote conversation aside. (Could you imagine such a world where basic greetings are registered on the marks? The confusion!) In Anglophone countries, where the meaning behind a person's name is often lost, this form of mark is statistically the most common.
He is seventeen when he starts experiencing feedback from the mark. It is the third day of the 1957 National Championships, and he has his opponent pinned in eight moves.
Then his entire forearm burns, then goes numbcoldpinsandneedleswhatthehell. He can hardly think. He is about to call an adjournment, probably should, but… eight moves.
Benny is seventeen, and impatient. He grits his teeth and finishes the game left-handed, taking twice as long because his coordination is thrown off.
The date is July 24, 1957. Beth is eight years old, and her world has just ended.